Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Racial blindness... a disability?

My Mother has a story that she loves to tell.
When I was 11 and started at a new school I was describing my friend Katherine to her. She couldn’t remember the kid in question, although she had met her when she picked me up previously.

I went through the stats again.
“My height, straight black hair, round face but skinny body, no freckles, great at art, wore her school uniform too big” (her mum knew she was still growing too).
Then Mum came to school camp and I introduced them, and Mum remembered her.
“SEEEEE Mum, You DO know her!”
Because she did.

Later in life when I was at Uni, mum was telling this story to a friend of mine and I assumed the punch line was Mums terrible memory.

No, it was my colour blindness.
They key visible feature of Katherine was that she looked Korean.
My first thought was; “But how do you describe that?”
“High cheek bones, no eyelid fold, awesome ability to tan, but no desire to do so?”

I was a bit saddened by the story.

Mostly because I have changed. Describing Katherine today it would be “My Korean friend from intermediate school”*.
I assume this change is because I have learnt to recognise different races, and it is the easiest way to identify a person to someone else.

Partly because Mum obviously did see people in terms of race as a primary distinguishing feature, and that’s a bit disappointing I guess.

I’m also confused. Presumably I didn’t naturally mark people out by race but have learnt to do so.
However, my own mother couldn’t recognise Katherine by the features I gave her without the racial information.
So where did I come from?

It took me a few years to stop being sad that I lost that part of me.
I have realised that to be totally blind to race and culture would be as bad as judging people solely on their race or culture.
Two ends of the spectrum, neither ideal.
As well as not identifying her by race I was probably assuming that Katherine loved vegemite, and playing at the beach and climbing trees. Because that was what I liked!
Katherine liked reading, drawing, had a close relationship with the catholic church and loved Kimchi (an acquired taste). Our friendship was all the more wonderful for the differences.

To see and respect the differences so you can learn from them, but not make the assumption of what they are by how they look is the challenge.

When we are watching a film my partner often says
“Where is that actor/actress from?”

I always hate the question because - how do you know?
How do you judge?
Why do you judge?
I could base it off an accent or colour, or clothing choice, but mostly it is guess work.

Where I am from, and my racial origins’ are such a small part of who I am.
I would love people to get to know ME, and the oddities that make up the culture of me, rather than make assumptions based on how I appear.

Where are you from, what is your culture, and why are you like that??

* I have more than one friend who is Korean, but only two friends total from intermediate school, so the oddity is the friend part of the sentence, not the Korean part!

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